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The Way It Is/ Al Jr's view of IndyCar's future formula

by Gordon Kirby
Al Unser Jr was a tremendous racer and has always been a man with an abiding passion for the sport. He put huge quantities of energy and emotion into his racing and after a long struggle with alcohol Al has been sober for the past eighteen months and started a second career as an IRL official and driver coach. You have to respect Unser's opinions and it's interesting that as everyone involved in IndyCar racing debates the IRL's new formula for 2011, Al has a very different view of what the formula should be than guys like Mario Andretti--his personal hero--and Bobby Rahal.

Unser agrees with Andretti and Rahal that the new IndyCar formula needs to test the drivers' skills more than the current formula, which is all about bravery rather than throttle control or brake modulation. But Al believes oval track racing has been forever changed both by the march of technology and by today's NASCAR-defined form of entertainment which demands cars running in close packs and plenty of crashes. He's convinced that a different paradigm must be applied to oval racing in the 21st Century.

"The IRL is changing a little bit now because we're starting to get on some road courses which separates your A drivers from your B drivers," Al observes. "But you can't see it on the mile-and-a-half ovals and the superspeedways. They run so much downforce in them today that when you go to Texas, Chicago, Kansas, Kentucky, or Nashville, it really is about the car.

"The driver comes into it as far as not making a mistake. It's not a performance thing. It's about not running into the guy in front of you, or trying not to let the guy behind you run into you. The way it is now in the IRL it's about giving each other enough room and that has allowed the eighteen or nineteen-year old who gets with a good team to be a frontrunner.

"Even Indy is just wide-open all day. Your car has to be just close and you can run every stint, the whole 500 miles, wide-open. You come in to get fuel and new tires and the Firestone tire technology is so good the tires don't go off at all."

The combination of massive downforce and superb tires makes everyone equal and these things in turn make passing on the ovals almost impossible. Unser believes the IRL will make some detail changes to the aero package for next year at Indianapolis, at least.

© Gary Gold
"They'll be looking at what to do to make it a better competitive situation," Unser says. "What I saw this year (at Indianapolis) was the leaders got within three or four car lengths of each other and that was it. That was as close as they could get to each other and they all ran the same speed, wide-open."

But Unser does not agree with Andretti, Rahal and others that downforce should be dramatically reduced. In fact, he's come to believe in the opposite approach to the problem.

"I think they should put more downforce in them and run them two-abreast around Indy. That would be like the Indy Lights which put on a hell of a show at Indy this year. They ran two-abreast around there and, of course, if you do that you're going to have guys running into each other.

"When you take the downforce out of the car and you make the driver lift the reason you're lifting is because you're out of control. They don't have the grip. Oval racing is not like a road course where you have different speeds. The oval is a high-speed, continuous-speed type of track."

Al believes cutting downforce will make the cars difficult to drive, much like the early, flat-bottom ground-effect cars which were fearsomely pitch-sensitive.

"Back when they first started discovering what ground effects was and they had those flat bottom cars--and Mario would agree to this--when you got that car at a certain angle and a certain ride height it created just a ton of downforce. And when you got out of the throttle just a tiny bit, you lost all the downforce.

"It was like driving in a tornado where you don't know if the wind is going to come from the left or the right, or the front or the back. As a driver the worst thing is a wind gust. If it's a crosswind, you can hang out with it. But if it's a gust you can't because it surprises you and seriously messes you up.

"If you go to less downforce that's what you're going to get--a car that is unpredictable," he adds. "Yes, it will separate the field, but that's not what today's oval racing is all about."

Al believes the development of new, more energy-absorbing materials, including substantial improvements in seat and cockpit construction, will allow the IRL to open-up the IndyCar rules so the cars will be able to safely lap the fastest superspeedways at 250 mph while running in close packs.

"Today's oval track racing is about running two-abreast, sometimes six rows deep," Unser says. "They run around places like Texas and Kentucky all day like that, and you put that at Indianapolis and you're going to see a hell of a show for 500 miles.

"That would be the direction that I would go. Make the cars safe and make the fans safe with the latest technology so that when they do get into each other none of the pieces go into the crowd, because when you run that close, they're going to get together. But it will be exciting!"

Again, Unser's view is very different from those of Mario Andretti and Bobby Rahal who believe that the downforce should be slashed to separate the cars, to make collisions and big, multi-car accidents less likely, and demand more from the drivers as far as throttle and brake control. Unlike Andretti and Rahal, Al Jr thinks IndyCar racing must adapt itself as best it can to putting on a furious show of close competition.

Personally, I don't agree with Al. But he may well be right.

So the debate continues.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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